Reflections on ‘Neoliberalism, Crisis and the World System’

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I managed to spend some time this week at an event on ‘Neoliberalism, Crisis and the World System‘. It was organised by my colleagues Nick Gane and Claire Westall. The event was free and I think it attracted around 150 delegates. What was particularly nice was that the group wasn’t split into streams. So each session had a very large audience. The event seemed to really tap into something. The audience was genuinely interdisciplinary, with historians, geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, political theorists and others, all coming together to discuss this key issue. It would seem that neoliberalism is a term that is providing the focus for some lively cross-disciplinary dialogue. It also seems to be a concept that generates some real vibrancy and debate. The sessions were lively and the breaks were full of continuing debate and interaction. I chaired a session on digital data as a tool of neoliberalism, which provided a media focus to the event. The other sessions covered a range of issues, including the political framing of neoliberalism and the questions it raises for voice, communication, governance and inequality. The first day ended with a two hour session on neoliberalism and the university, with a crackling atmosphere. This session in particular seemed to provoke provocative exchanges between the panel and the audience and some insight into the way in which these broader political issues are playing out in the working lives of the attendees.

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The event left me wondering why a concept like neoliberalism is able to provoke and stimulate such debate. Why is it that this particular concept attracts such a large group of diverse attendees? How is it enabling and provoking such vibrant debate and response? Why is it speaking to these academics? I missed much of the second day due to open day commitments, but Jamie Peck’s stunning closing plenary pointed to some of the analytical properties of the concept of neoliberalism. As well as showing the historical trajectory of this concept, Jamie highlighted the tensions that are at the centre of its use and deployment. As there are different versions of neoliberalization playing out in different geographical contexts, so too different thinkers are using the concept to shape different analytical approaches and understandings. So it would seem that neoliberalism is a concept that thrives on such tensions. As Jamie remarked in response to a question from the floor, the analytical value in neoliberalism is in what it ‘forces us to do’. By which he seemed to suggest, it forces us to think of differences and connections whilst also having a profoundly historical and contextual understanding of neoliberalization as a continual project with ‘no destination’.

I’m just writing now on the future of sociology and the way that vibrancy and excitement might be generated for/by sociologists. I’m thinking that this concept, despite its growing baggage, could well be worth exploring further. It seems that some conceptual ideas have a life of their own that is hard to understand but which provokes an affective response amongst people from lots of academic disciplines and beyond. This in itself is really interesting and shows the power of just a single concept for framing such varied and vibrant exchanges.

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5 Responses to Reflections on ‘Neoliberalism, Crisis and the World System’

  1. Simon says:

    disciplines are only dialectical if they engage in sustained self-critique. Every now and then we have to declare sociology dead – and explain why it is so – if it is to renew itself and play a key role in explaining the present. Huge swathes of sociology now refuses to engage with the historical problems faced by civil society. It no longer seems willing to integrate cutting edge ideas from its parent disciplines. It remains hamstrung by its fetishistic attachment to dead ideas. It is increasingly dominated by a reductive empiricism that tries to convince itself that a truth lies at the end of yet another ESRC project. More practically, it is populated by middle class liberals who are divorced from the suffering of the world and so tend to minimise the hardships and harms of liberal capitalism. Social criticism – once the central motor of sociological analysis – is now only a marginal concern. Would it be going to far to suggest that sociology is how merely a collection of micro-concerns reflecting the habitus of the liberal middle classes?
    This is what me must do: leave sociology to decay while attempting to construct new ideas that are useful to actually explaining the world as it is. In so doing, we allow sociology to breath again.

  2. Pingback: Some short essays on ‘Neoliberalism, Crisis and the World System’ | Thinking culture

  3. dianabuja says:

    I live and teach in Burundi, central Africa – here, as elsewhere in Africa that I’ve travelled or worked, even the concept of liberalism, as a category, is often perceived as simply nonsensical. And so I wonder the extent to which it is a category that is really viable (only?) in the ‘West’ – I mean, primarily in European and North American circles. So yes, I agree it is a concept that – . together with neoliberalism – is in need of exploration and analysis.

    I also agree with many of the points made by Simon, above, regarding the current trajectory of sociology. By training I am an anthropologist and so have other dimensions of these categories that are of interest.

    V. interesting blog.

  4. Pingback: Videos of the talks from the event on ‘Neoliberalism, Crisis and the World System’ | Thinking culture

  5. Pingback: Current reading…Foucault and Ajana | Thinking culture

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